Columbia County profile

Washington state map with Columbia county highlightedby Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist - updated September 2017

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment | Industry employment | Wages and income | Population | Useful links | PDF Profile copy


Regional context

Columbia County was carved out of Walla Walla County in 1875. County covers only 868.63 square miles of land, ranking 31st in size among Washington’s 39 counties. Columbia County is located in southeastern Washington, borders the Oregon state line to its south, Whitman County and the Snake River to its north, Walla Walla County to its west and Garfield County to its east. Columbia County has the 3rd smallest population in the state with population density of 4.7 people per square mile. The County is mostly agricultural land that’s specialized in farming, especially wheat, asparagus and green peas as well as ranching and logging. Today, agriculture and food processing are still dominant along with food manufacturing and local government.

Local economy

The Columbia County area was home to many tribes including Palouse, Nez Perce, Yakama, Wanapum, Walla Walla, and Umatilla. Breeding, trading and selling horses was a central part of tribal existence. Later trading became one of the primary economic activities as fur and goods trading companies moved into the area with pioneers. As pioneers started settling in the area agricultural and ranching activities prospered as demand for produce and meats grew with new influx of gold rush pioneers.

Due to employment activities primarily centered in agriculture and government, Columbia County has had marginally stable economy. Nevertheless, employment activities have developed a small seasonal pattern for the past five years mainly due to new wind projects, such as Hopkins Ridge, Marengo and the Dayton wind farms. Recent work has been started to reestablish food processing in the county with the new Blue Mountain Station project. This project will serve as a food processing business incubator, blending sustainable, locally grown produce with food and organic food production.

Ski Bluewood, the local ski area, change in ownership ensured that the local ski area continued to operate. This local skiing facility is an important source of tourism and seasonal employment for residents across the region. Local micro manufacturing and retail sectors are bouncing back and sprouting a new entrepreneurial environment, which is greatly contributing to local economic stability.

(back to top)

Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Rank in state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 868.63  31 
 Persons per square mile, 2010 4.7  36 

(back to top)


Over the years commodity based industries have contributed the most to Columbia County growth. The wheat crop is in high demand and has been very profitable in the past couple of years. Commodities across most markets have continued to benefit from changing levels of global trade, demand and monetary valuations. Local agricultural community is very strong, however local agricultural jobs are highly volatile from year to year. Best year for the agricultural activities in the past five years have been 2012 and 2013.

Industries that have been growing since 2011 include: construction (19.7 percent), health care and social assistance (11.4 percent), accommodation and food services (11.2 percent), professional and technical services (5.0 percent) and real estate and rental and leasing (2.1 percent).

Columbia County is becoming a tourist destination for its historic preservation appeal and in turn is expanding its accommodation and food services industry, with a five year average annual growth rate of 11.2 percent. Columbia County is part of Eastern Washington Workforce Development which has annual projections for employment growth of 1.5 percent through 2020.

(back to top)

Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current labor force and unemployment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

In 2016, Columbia County’s civilian labor force totaled 1,732, which is an increase of 2.2 percent from 2015. The number employed increased by 2.0 percent to 1,614 in 2016 from 1,582 in 2015. Columbia County unemployment rate increased by 0.2 percent by going from 6.6 percent in 2015 to 6.8 percent in 2016, as a result of increased labor force participation.

Yearly averages in the labor force show some volatility in the local employment market, with two to three year boom and bust cycles, which are associated with the agricultural economic base, and wind energy construction processes.  There are few industries that are recovering from a down-turn in the economy in 2013, which was due to a loss of construction jobs on wind farm projects.

The latest numbers for labor force show the labor force at 1,803 in July, 2017, with 2.6 percent increase from same time in 2016. All of the people that entered labor force (46) and about 27 of those who were unemployed propelled resident employment growth by 4.4 percent in July 2017, when compared to the same time a year before. Unemployment rate was recorded at 4.6 percent in July, 2017 which is the lowest unemployment rate that the area has seen since June of 1990.

(back to top)

Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current industry employment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

Columbia County added some 1,245 jobs to the state’s total employment in 2016 with a 1.8 percent decrease from 2015.  

Goods-producing employment averaged 298 in 2016, posting a decrease of 6.0 percent when compared to 2015. Total covered payrolls were $15.3 million, which has increased by 0.8 percent from 2015 figures. The goods-producing industry makes up 25.0 percent of total employment.

  • Agriculture represents the majority of the goods-producing industry, and about 11.1 percent of total employment in the area. Agriculture had an average of 138 workers with total payrolls at $4.6 million.
  • From its most recent peak in 2009 of 424, goods-producing employment decreased as food manufacturing contracted due to closures of local manufacturing plants and the recession’s effect on construction.
  • Manufacturing represents 3.7 percent of total employment and provides about 46 jobs in the area with $1.2 million in total wages .
  • Columbia County has held steady in recent years mainly due to wind farm construction projects in the area, new small manufacturing initiatives and efforts with Blue Mountain station .
  • Construction makes up 7.3 percent of total county employment with 91 jobs in 2016. Construction decreased by 9 jobs or 9.0 percent in 2016, with $6.5 million in covered payrolls. On average construction worker in Columbia County took home over $71,884 in 2016.

Service-providing employment averaged 947 in 2016, down by 0.4 percent from the 2015 average. Columbia County service-providing employment is comprised of many industries including government.

  • Government employment, which represents 40.6 percent of total area employment increased by 0.8 percent in 2016 and had average annual wage of $44,368 .
  • Accommodation and food services increased over the year by 11.2 percent and represented 8.2 percent of total employment. Accommodation and food services had total of $1.6 million wages, contributing to average annual wage in this industry of $15,406 .

 For historical industry employment data, contact an economist.

Industry employment by age and gender

(Source: The Local Employment Dynamics)

The Local Employment Dynamics (LED) database, a joint project of state employment departments and the U.S. Census Bureau, matches state employment data with federal administrative data. Among the products is industry employment by age and gender. All workers covered by state unemployment insurance data are included; federal workers and non-covered workers, such as the self-employed, are not. Data are presented by place of work, not place of residence. Some highlights:

The largest jobholder group in Columbia County in 2016 was the 55 to 64 years of age group with 22.0 percent of the workforce. They were followed by 34 to 44 year-olds with 20.5 percent of the workforce, a decrease of 0.6 percent over the year.

In 2016, 52.9 percent of all industry jobs were held by men and 47.1 percent were held by women. Industry differences are discussed below:

  • Male-dominated industries included administrative and waste management (100.0 percent), construction (90.8 percent), agriculture (82.2 percent), utilities (80.2 percent), wholesale trade (73.7 percent), and manufacturing (67.2 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included finance and insurance (80.0 percent), health care (78.3 percent), information (74.1 percent), accommodations and food services (74.3 percent), and professional, scientific and technical services (68.4 percent).

(back to top)

Wages and income

(Source: Employment Security Department; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

In 2016, Columbia County had 1,245 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of over $48.6 million.

The county annual average wage was $39,006 in 2016, which was below the state’s average annual wage of $59,073. In 2016, Columbia County was ranked 18th in the state for average annual wages among the 39 counties.

The Columbia County median hourly wage was $18.83 in 2016, an increase over $0.46 over the year. Median wage in Columbia County was well below the state’s median hourly wage of $23.91, which increased by $0.44 over the year.

Personal Income

Personal income includes earned income, investment income, and government payments such as Social Security and Veterans Benefits. Investment income includes income imputed from pension funds and from owning a home. Per capita personal income equals total personal income divided by the resident population.

In 2015, the per capita income in Columbia County was $48,769, which was well below the state’s per capita income of $51,898 according to Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Median household income over the period 2011 to 2015 was $38,581, well below the state’s $61,062, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

During the same time period, 15.2 percent of the population was living below the poverty level in Columbia County, compared to 11.3 percent for the state.

(back to top)


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

According to the Census estimate for 2016, the Columbia County population was 3,938. The population of the county is expected to remain somewhat stable.

The Columbia County seat and largest city is Dayton, with population of 2,545 in 2016. The second notable city is Starbuck, with population of 130.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Washington state
 Population 2016 3,938  7,288,000 
 Population 2010 4,078  6,724,540 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2016 -3.4%  8.4% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County has a large retirement community with 27.4 percent of population being 65 years and older in 2015.

  • Columbia County’s population 65 and older was 28.3 percent in 2016 compared to the state’s 14.8 percent.
  • Those under 18 years of age made up 17.8 percent in 2016 compared to the state’s 22.4 percent.
  • The youngest age group, those under 5 years of age, was 4.4 percent in 2016, much smaller when compared to the state’s 6.2 percent.

Female persons made up 50.8 percent of the county’s population, which is slightly above the state’s 50.0 percent.

Diversity in the county shows 93.6 percent of residents are white, with 7.5 percent persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, compared to the state’s 80.0 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 4.4%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 17.8%  22.4% 
65 years and older 28.3%  14.8% 
 Females, 2016 50.8%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White 93.6%  80.0% 
Black 0.8%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.7%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 1.4%  9.4% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 7.5%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Over the period 2011 to 2015, 90.1 percent of individuals age 25 and older were high school graduates, which is lower than that of Washington state (90.4 percent).

Over the same period, it’s estimated that 23.0 percent of people in Columbia County 25 and older had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. This does not compare favorably with the state (32.9 percent).

(back to top)


Useful links

(back to top)